Borrowing Money for School: An Exercise in Confusion and Mild Panic

I am lucky. I grew up knowing that my parents would pay for my college education. This was not easy for them. I have two sisters, and my parents were committed to sending each of us to college. They worked, and saved, and budgeted, and at times fought over saving and budgeting.

When I wanted to transfer from my affordable and respectable state institution to a fancy and expensive private school, my dad sat me down and explained the reality of that choice. I didn’t fully understand the impact of taking on a lot of student loan debt at that time, but I did understand that student loan debt, or any kind of debt, was Serious Business.

I paid attention. I made it through my bachelor’s degree with zero debt. I worked part time during the school year, and full time during the summers. Just as much as the fact of my going to college was always a given, so was the fact that if I wanted to attend graduate school, I would have to find a way to pay for it myself.

So, I did. I worked full time for a number of years, and when I found a program that I liked, at a school that was close enough to get to in the evenings after work, I applied.

I paid for it in part by taking advantage of my employer’s 50% tuition reimbursement deal, which they honored for a few terms until they realized that someone was actually using that benefit and cut off the funds. I also had some savings, and a small inheritance, and so paid cash for the rest. By spreading the classes out, one per term (except for the summers, when I inexplicably doubled up in a concentrated amount of time; I do not recommend this), I earned my master’s degree without a penny of debt.

Then, I went back to school for my doctorate. I did not need to borrow money to cover living expenses, but I did borrow to cover tuition. Having never borrowed money for school before, I took it upon myself to go to the financial aid office in person to make sure that everything was squared away.

I had already filled out the FAFSA forms. I had taken the FAFSA quiz that has questions along the lines of, “you know you have to pay this back, right?” The government offered me the full amount of unsubsidized loans: $12,500/year.

The catch was that I didn’t need $12,500 a year. Tuition was in the neighborhood of $4-6,000 per year, because 1) it was an affordable state school, and 2) I was only attending part-time.

I couldn’t figure out how to decline any part of the excess money, so I walked into the financial aid office of my school and introduced myself. I said I was new to that school, and to the student loan process. I asked if someone could please tell me how to borrow the money that I do need, and decline the money that I don’t.

Seems straightforward, right?

The lady behind the desk handed me a form and said to fill it out. There was a box at the bottom for me to handwrite my explanation as to what money I wanted to decline. This seemed rather unofficial to me, but after all, these are the people who should know, right?

I filled out the form. I again explained my intention. I was told that I had done what I needed to do, and to have a nice day.

Huh, I thought. That was easy enough.

About a month later, I received a statement from the U.S. Department of Education. The statement showed that I had borrowed the full amount offered, and that interest was accruing.

I went back to the financial aid office. I again explained my situation. I was again told that I had followed the procedure to only borrow X dollars and decline the rest.

“Except, the Federal Government is charging me interest,” I explained. The financial aid staff was confused. I had followed the procedure and they had logged my visit in the computer. If it said in the computer that I had done what I was supposed to do, then we were all set.

“Except, the Federal Government is charging me interest,” I said again.

I refused to leave the office until we got this figured out. It was an uncomfortable situation. The financial aid staff kept insisting my account was set up properly. I kept showing them the loan statement showing that it wasn’t.

Eventually, defeated, I left the office, confused, but unable to get anywhere.

Then, I received an email saying that if I did not settle my account within three business days, I would be dropped from my schedule.

Excuse me? What’s this now? Had I not followed the procedure? Did I not go, in person, twice, to speak to financial aid professionals to ensure that my account was set up properly?

Did I not fill out the form that I was told twice was all I needed to do? Did the financial aid staff not check the computer and see that my account was set up properly? And as the Federal Government was charging me interest, clearly something was paid to someone. If I didn’t have the money, and the University didn’t have the money, who had the money?  What on earth was going on?

I went back to the financial aid office. Again, I had to insist that my account was not, in fact, set up properly, only now I had the added component of the threat of being dropped from my classes, and I had no idea why.

I insisted on sitting down with a supervisor in the financial aid office. She checked the computer. She said what everyone else kept saying: my account showed that I had set everything up and so clearly had not borrowed the extra money. I showed her the loan statement from the federal government showing that the government had loaned me the full amount.

I showed her the email saying I was about to be dropped from my classes and now had only had two business days to work out what I had thought I had worked out weeks ago by going, in person, twice, to the financial aid office, explaining my situation, and asking for help.

Here’s where I fast forward to the conclusion: It turns out that when the Federal Government issues student loan checks, it sends the checks to the school. Then, students apparently, as if by magic or telepathy, have to know to show up at the Bursar’s office at a particular time of year to claim the check.

To this day, I have no idea how students learn they have to do this. I never got a letter or an email or a phone call. I went to the financial aid office in person more than once, each time explaining that I had no idea how the process works and asking for help.

Yet, somehow I was magically supposed to know I had to stand in a line at a particular office at a particular time, accept a live check and either sign for it and keep the money or sign it back over to the university, at which time they credit my account with enough of the funds to settle my bill, and return the rest to Uncle Sam.

This process left me speechless. No wonder so many so students rack up debt like someone is handing them free money. Because, someone is handing them free money.

It’s a good thing I was a woman of a certain age, who was raised to be extremely conservative with debt. There was no way I was going to borrow one penny more than I absolutely needed to cover my tuition. But would the situation have been different were I an 18-year-old freshman who didn’t grow up with my dad teaching me the importance of saving early and often?

I was acutely aware of the impact of debt and compounding interest, but I know that not everyone is. I can see the dollar signs adding up as one uninformed college student after another is handed a five-figure check with their name on it, knowing they don’t have to figure out how to pay it back for years.

To this day, I do not understand how students are supposed to figure out this process. Apparently, they do. That line at the bursar’s office was long. Does every student figure this out the same way that I did, through confusion and mild panic?

There were a lot of people involved in the financial aid office (and, not incidentally, the Dean’s office, when I called to ask why I was about to be dropped from my classes) who treated me as though I was doing something wrong. The woman in the Dean’s office was flat-out rude, acting as though my situation was entirely of my own delinquency for not paying my bills. Even when I explained the situation, still she was condescending and rude, as if I was lying about my circumstances.

If walking into the financial aid office and asking point blank for help understanding the process is not enough for a student to become educated, what exactly are students supposed to do? Circumstances like these make me angry at the growing student debt crisis in our country, because it’s clear that there is information that needs to be shared, yet the people in the best positions to share it are not doing so.

 

 

 

 

Women and Student Loan Debt

A new article I wrote went live today. Please check it out and leave a comment on the site!

This was an interesting piece to write. When I was first assigned the topic, I had no idea how I would get 2,000 words out of it. Then, I started researching, asking around, and paying attention.

It turns out that student loan debt is actually a women’s issue. I had no idea. Did you?

The Key to Maintaining A Healthy Weight in Your 40s

I am a reasonably slim, physically fit woman. I have always been active, and enjoy exercise. Yet, despite these truths, I started gradually putting on a little more weight, and a little more, and a little more after that, until one day I was 40 years old and had no idea how I suddenly needed all new pants.

I went hiking last year with a dear friend and after several hours of a fairly grueling ascent, we took a selfie. I hated – and I mean hated – how I looked in that picture. I was embarrassed by that picture. My friend posted that picture to Facebook and I almost asked her to take it down. Then I thought, no. Hiding from this is not the answer. Instead, I need to figure out what I’m going to do about it, because no way am I buying all new pants, again.

Marie before
My “Before” picture

How It Happened

In a nutshell: I turned 40. When women get to middle age, our metabolism decreases by about 5% for every ten years past the age of 40.[1]By changing nothing other than simply observing the passage of time, I will continue to gain weight slowly yet steadily. It’s a cruel game, but one that I am determined to win.

What I Did About It

I resolved to make some changes in my life. I started by moving more. I found some buddies at work who also want to move more, and we went for a brisk half hour walk every day at lunchtime. Eventually, I found some coworkers who wanted to hit the gym pretty hard during our lunch breaks, so I joined them. Together, we have been incorporating running and strength training – get this – into my workday. That was a tough change at first. I had to embrace packing (and unpacking) a gym bag each and every day. I needed a second pair of sneakers so I could keep a pair in my bag at all times. I got used to taking a sometimes cold shower on the fly after a workout and going back to my desk just a bit askew. I accepted that any good hair day I had would only last for the morning, because after lunch I would have workout hair.

And you know what? It was worth it.

Within six months I noticed I not only had more energy, but my pants were fitting looser. I was able to lift heavier weights. I started to like what I saw when I looked in the mirror more and more.

Don’t Count Calories

As much as I know that exercise helped not only my waistline but also my psyche, changing my eating habits helped much more. I met with a nutritionist, and that was helpful, mostly because she showed me that as long as I am eating nutritionally dense foods, I can eat much more than I thought I could and stay within a healthy calorie range. But the real key was when I met with my doctor and asked for her recommendation for a healthy weight. She paused for a minute, and then said thoughtfully: “Women in our 40s and 50s just don’t need as many calories.”

It was like a light went off. She’s right. That’s the key. It really is that simple.

I have to work on not eating when I’m not hungry. I don’t need to munch on something every time I sit down with a book. I don’t need to pre-emptively eat now just in case I get hungry later and don’t have easy access to food. I started stashing healthy, protein-heavy snacks in easy to grab places. I have a large tub of unsalted mixed nuts in my desk at work. I bought 100 calorie Kind bars so I can throw one in my bag for when I’m out and about. I made it easy for myself to always have something that tastes good and is nutrient-rich around me at all times, so that I make better choices.

This way, when I do make less than healthy choices, I’m not derailing myself. I still eat ice cream, but I buy mochi, which are individual sized bites of ice cream wrapped in rice dough. They’re delightful and portion controlled. I sometimes eat more fruit snacks than I should but I make sure to buy them in individual sized packages so I don’t snarf an entire bag in one sitting. Sure, buying things that are pre-packaged that way is a bit less economical than portioning them out myself, but not having to buy all new pants – again – is well worth the added bit of expense of these foods. I’m more likely to stick with the healthy snacks when I make it as easy on myself as possible to access them.

Throw Away the Scale

This step is key. I was making myself crazy by stepping on my bathroom scale every day, every day. Then the battery died, and I made a conscious decision not to replace it. I give the side eye to the scale at the gym and keep on walking. I’ll let my doctor weigh me once a year, but other than that, the only number I’ll pay attention to is the one on the smaller size pants that I’m buying.

I also do not count calories, ever. Do I have a better idea of what constitutes 100 calories? Yes. Am I getting more comfortable with just how much food I need at any given meal to be satisfied and healthy? Yes, though that’s still a process. When counting calories, I would try to “win” by eating as few of my allotted calories a day. That was a mistake. I was constantly hungry, and then angry, and then hangry, and then had no energy, and this doesn’t work! Do not do this to yourself! I am now in the habit of knowing that I will be happier if I eat those multi-grain toaster waffles with almond butter in the morning than if I have a doughnut for breakfast. I’m giving up nothing.

What’s Next

I’m going to continue to plan meals, including making extra and freezing them. This way, when I’m hungry and don’t have the time or energy to cook, I simply pull a premade meal out of the freezer, defrost, and enjoy. I’m going to continue to exercise regularly and find new ways to fit exercise into my daily routine, because I enjoy it, not because I feel that I should. I’m going to continue not caring about the number on the scale, because the real point of life is to find the balance between enjoying food without overindulging in food (which really isn’t so enjoyable anyway).

after
Me today.

I plan to eat all the things, but to remember that I simply don’t need as many calories, and let that be my guide. So far, it’s working out pretty well.

[1]https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/fighting-40s-flab#1

 

The Day I Stopped Using My Fitbit

I recently started making a conscious choice to change my habits when it comes to technology. I have been staring at my phone too long, losing hours to mindlessly web surfing. I jumped at every message that came in, and even started my day using my phone as my alarm clock, which inevitably led to more staring at the screen as I used that as an excuse not to face the day. The final straw was when I was sitting in the dentist’s chair and saw a poster on the wall advertising the latest electronic toothbrush. The thing comes with an app that you can use for – who cares what you can use it for. I was almost angry when looking at that poster. The last thing I want is to need my phone to use my toothbrush. What on earth have we become?

This inspired me to start thinking about all of the ways I have been using my phone out of habit. I even brought it to the office gym every day when I would work out at lunchtime. Why on earth do I need my phone at the gym? I don’t. Sometimes when I run on the treadmill, I don’t mind having tunes to keep me occupied, but normally I work out with other people. I don’t need the phone to do the workout. Someone else is usually willing to stream music while we exercise, and take a group picture after we’re done. And if we miss out on those things, oh well. Small price to pay for being untethered.

Plus, I found that when I had my phone with me, I would linger before showering to check email, scan Facebook, and generally waste time. It was getting ridiculous.

So, one day, I left my FitBit at home by accident. I got halfway to my car, thought about going back for it, and then thought, nope.

It was that simple. That was two weeks ago and I haven’t touched it since. I haven’t charged it. I haven’t synced it. I haven’t missed it.

When I first got the Fitbit, I enjoyed using it to connect to others. Then I enjoyed using it to compete with others. And then I enjoyed using it to compete with myself.

However, after not too long at all, I realized that I was starting to feel obligated to stare at my phone to sync my steps at least once a day, if not more. And when I started working out with the group at lunchtime, those strength workouts didn’t add up to nearly as many steps even though I was getting better exercise. I found that thanks to those daily workouts, I was getting more than enough fitness and really didn’t need to overwhelm myself with trying to get in more steps.

I certainly wasn’t going to feel obligated to then walk an arbitrary number of additional steps just to meet … what? Whose goal, exactly? Daily step goals are great to get you out of a rut. They’re interesting to see how far you go on a day when you’re on your feet a lot. But walking a minimum number of steps is merely one way to work exercise into your day. It’s certainly not the only way.

While the FitBit can be a gateway to developing newer, better fitness habits, I found that it was also a gateway to developing an unhealthy phone addiction.

To cap it all off, today I received an email from Fitbit alerting users to a recent data breach. Awesome. I knew while using it that I was wearing a GPS tracking device. I was aware of how much information I was choosing to upload to the magic cloud in the sky. But all the same, with so much of our lives happening digitally now, it is time for companies like this to step up their security game, and protect their users. Basic respect for privacy, within the limits of what we choose to share, is not an unreasonable expectation.

All signs are pointing to no more Fitbit. And I am very much okay with that.

How I Got Through College Without Crippling Student Loan Debt, aka Thanks, Mom and Dad

This morning, I read yet another “how I wound up with a bajillion dollars worth of student loan debt” article. And I experienced my usual reaction: it’s not as if the cost of tuition or the cost of interest on the loans were a surprise. No one did that to you. You made a choice. If you don’t want to end up with crippling debt, don’t borrow the money.

Then, I thought back to my own college experiences, and about the choices that I made that allowed me to graduate debt-free. And I realized that it’s an easy thing to point debt-free fingers now, but important to remember that when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, there’s no magic place from which to get the information you need to make smart financial choices. The learning curve for how borrow responsibly and manage debt can be steep.

After one year in college, I wanted very much to transfer from my affordable state university to a fancy private school in my dream city. My parents, who were generously paying the full bill for me to attend said state school, were not happy about this decision. They didn’t really understand it. Neither of them attended a residential college. My dad commuted to his school while living at home with his parents, and my mom didn’t go to college, instead working to save money while dad was in school. “That’s just what people did,” mom always said.

So, the idea of eschewing this incredible free (to me) thing – a full ride, including room and board, at a well-regarded university, in favor of a much more expensive degree at a school that they regarded as essentially the same only this one would require plane tickets to get me there and back and a much higher price tag – was unthinkably bizarre to them.

To me, the allure was living in the brand new city, spreading my wings, and experiencing life. The school had a unique work-study program that would have allowed me a structured way to get significant work experience under my belt by the time I graduated. It also involved moving away from home, which had a lot of appeal.

My parents only saw the price tag: Fancy Private School cost a whopping three times as much as Perfectly Fine State University. My parents were willing to continue paying the same money they had set aside for me to attend Perfectly Fine State University, but I would have to come up with the balance on my own.

I knew even then that coming up with that amount of money was not going to be easy.

I was disappointed. My dreams of living a grand life in Fabulous New City were crushed. Darn my parents and their practicality!

I stayed at Perfectly Fine State University and learned to make the best of it. I made good friends. I found my own work-study opportunities.

I’ll be honest – it was a long time before I was able to let go of the big idea of attending Fancy Private School. I can look back on it now, twenty-plus years later, and see the benefit of my choice to stay at Perfectly Fine State University as I am able to move forward with my life enjoying the lack of crippling debt that an expensive undergraduate education would have cost me.

What stopped me from taking out loan after loan and [insert dramatic emphasis] going after my dream of attending Fancy Private School was not logic or understanding of personal finance. It was, quite simply, my parents.

It was seeing how stressed my mother was at wanting so badly to help me have the thing I clearly wanted but knowing she couldn’t afford to send me there. (And, to be fair, my parents gave me a pretty nice life. It’s just that the Thing That I Wanted was ridiculously expensive and unnecessary.)

It was sitting with my dad in the hotel room in Fancy New City when he took me there to visit the school (and probably hoped to show me that it really wasn’t all that different than my Perfectly Fine State University. To me, though, Fancy New Private School was all glitter and rainbows). After going on a tour of the campus, we went back to the hotel, and had a chat. That’s when he said that he and my mother were prepared to continue paying the same amount of money they had planned to pay to send me to Perfectly Fine State University, and that if I were serious about attending Fancy Private School, I was going to be responsible for coming up with the difference in cost.

“How are you going to do that?” my father asked. I had no idea. I had a vague awareness that other people took out loans. I thought I could do that, too! My dad explained a bit about how long it might take to pay off that amount of money. He talked about how difficult it might be for me to borrow the amount of money I needed, because he was not willing to co-sign a loan or sign the student loan paperwork that would require me (him) to divulge his salary and other assets to the federal government.

I was stumped. How do other people do this, I wondered?

I still don’t know for sure how people finance that kind of expensive anything without help. Through massive interest rates, most likely. Perhaps they do have a parent or other family member willing to co-sign a loan. I truly don’t know how people even get that kind of money to borrow, let alone figure out how to pay back, without any participation from their parents, as nascent young adults without an established credit history.

What I do know is that it was hard enough to figure out how to live on my entry-level paycheck for my first job out of college without loan payments to make. I don’t see how I could have gone to graduate school with that kind of debt under my belt, either. Or bought a house. Or saved for retirement.

Do I wonder, every now and then, what life would have been like had I been able to move to Fancy New City and attend Fancy Private School? Sure, I do. Am I grateful that I had parents willing to help me put the brakes on and make a more sensible decision that would affect me long-term? Absolutely. I realize that not everyone has that kind of support built in, and I try to keep that in mind when I read yet another article about someone who took on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of college debt without realizing just how financially crippling that would be. Sometimes, people really don’t know the effects of a decision like that until it’s too late.

The Day of My Defense

The day of defending my doctoral dissertation, I arrived on campus several hours early to go over my notes and calm my nerves. I had planned to spend a few hours practicing my talk in my private library study room. I walked in and noticed that someone else’s things were in the room. While the rooms were designed to accommodate two people, I had had the space to myself for years. No problem, though, I just figured I should grab a second chair in case my new roommate came to use the space. Even after completing a defense, there were still several months of revisions that were possible, and I wanted to be prepared to continue using the space during that time.

I walked down the hall to the library administration office and introduced myself to the administrative assistant. I asked for a second chair so that my roommate and I could both be accommodated. She seemed confused by this, and looked up my room assignment.

Her demeanor quickly changed to one of accusation. She said her records showed that I graduated several years prior, so clearly I had been using the room and my key card against regulations all this time.

Now I was confused. Obviously, I’m still here, I pointed out. I have not graduated. I am using the room as assigned.

She insisted I was abusing the privilege of using the room and was not supposed to be there. Meanwhile, I had a dissertation to defend and no time for this nonsense.

We left it with her saying she would follow up later, and me going back to the study area to complete the preparations for my talk, and to calm down.

This encounter was not, unfortunately, unusual at my institution. In my years there, I had encountered numerous instances of poor processes, rude individuals, and red tape with the library, financial aid, registration, my academic department, the graduate school, my dissertation committee … the list goes on.

Bottom line: the school should have offered support of my preparations for my defense, not obstacles. And yet here I was, on the day of my defense, the day to which the university had a vested interest (one would think) in encouraging me to meet with success, and I was dealing with yet another argument, yet another difficult and incongruous situation.

As annoying as the library experience was, though, I had no idea of what kind of obstacles were waiting for me at the defense.

I walked into the conference room prepared to give my talk. My dissertation advisor, Professor K, came in. A few of my classmates joined us. One by one, my department chair arrived, then the program advisor, then one of my other committee members, who also happened to be the Dean of the Liberal Arts department.

My third reader was missing. The hour was upon us. No sign of her. The air in the room was getting thick with tension. What professor is this kind of late to their student’s defense?

My advisor went to find her. More time passed. She came back in, whispered something to the department chair, and they left the room together.

An eternity passed. It got awkward, as my classmates and I all knew something was wrong but didn’t know what and had no clue what to say to each other. The department chair finally came back in and asked everyone other than my second reader and the program advisor to leave.

Finally, my third reader, Professor N, came in the room. She sat down across from me and looked uncomfortable.

I found out later that she had told my advisor earlier in the day that she wasn’t going to attend, and that she had no intention of signing off on my work. My advisor opted not to warn me, thinking that she only needed a majority of signatures on the dissertation for me to pass, and so she was going to let Prof. N. abdicate from signing.

So there I sat, with no earthy clue why one of my committee members was so rudely late or so awkwardly pulled into the room.

Prof. K told Prof. N that she needed to explain herself.

“I’m not going to sign your dissertation,” she said. She didn’t feel it was scholarly, and wasn’t willing to put her name on it.

Silence.

Remember, that also at that table were the other two members of my committee – one of whom was the Dean and the other was my committee chair, who was a tenured, senior professor – along with the department chair and program advisor. These were exactly the people you might expect to speak up for a student in such a situation. Yet not one of them said so much as a word. They simply looked at me and waited for me to respond to this bizarre news that – for me – came out of nowhere.

I distinctly remember a moment of absolute clarity during that silence when I realized this one thing: no one in that room was going to speak up on my behalf. The only person in that room who was going to speak up for me was me.

There was a time in my life when confrontation like this would have sent my crying out of the room. I would have simply retreated, having known no other way to respond.

But in this instance, it was as if the last seven years flashed before me. In my third reader’s refusal to sign my work, I saw everything I had done to get to that point. I saw the years of lost earnings while I worked part-time and gave up a career in marketing, along with the years of increased salary that staying in that field would have brought.

I saw the time after time that I was told my work was good, that I was getting close, that surely I would graduate next semester, only to be yanked back again and again because someone else had decided that the work just wasn’t ready.

I saw the end of my marriage, which had crumbled during my years in graduate school. The relationship didn’t end due to my being in school, but my earning a degree that he wanted while not being able to get into a program himself slowly chipped away at our partnership and began revealing the weak places.

No. Just, no. She did not get to take away the last seven years of work, and stress, and isolation. She did not get to take away my ideas, and my writing, and my progress. She did not get to erase my scholarship.

I looked her square in the eye and said:

“I have been working with you for years. I have made every change you have asked for. I have read every book you suggested. You wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation, praising my ideas. I consulted you on scheduling this defense and you approved our meeting today. If your feelings against my work were this strong, why is this the first I’m hearing about it?”

More silence. She was stunned. I think everyone else was, too. She then had to explain herself, and really couldn’t, because there was simply no acceptable explanation for her behavior.

She tried to say that the problem was the font that I had chosen. That’s right: the font.

The graduate school had a list of acceptable fonts from which to choose, and I picked one off the list that several classmates who had graduated before me had chosen. She had recommended I choose a different one. That is the one and only change she had suggested over the course of years that I did not implement, because I had followed the rules and, frankly, had had it with being jerked around here, there, and everywhere doing everything my committee members said I should do instead of being expected to think for myself. I picked an acceptable font, she said her suggestion was just a personal preference and not a requirement, yet here we were.

I was then told that I had a choice: I could accept that she would not sign my dissertation and be ABD forever, or I could start over from scratch with a new topic that would likely require a new committee.

I said neither of those options was acceptable. I had done everything required of me. This was insane.

She then said the other option was for me to replace her with a different third reader, potentially making the changes that person wanted, and risking that the new third reader would not be happy with my progress. My chair had some names in mind of who might be a suitable replacement. Fine. If that’s what I have to do, I’ll do it. Prof. N was officially excused from serving on my committee.

I somehow made it through that entire ordeal without crying. To this day, I don’t know how. I know my voice wavered. I know I looked upset. But I did not cry.

I did not cry when I got to my car and started texting the friends who were going to meet me at a restaurant to celebrate, telling them that the party was off.

I did not cry the entire hour drive home.

I walked in my front door, grabbed the mail, and saw a card from a dear friend. She had timed mailing it to arrive on just that day, to congratulate me on my hard work and for finally, finally finishing my degree.

That’s when I broke down. I’m not sure how long I stood there in my living room, sobbing. I eventually got myself together and realized that one friend who didn’t have a cell phone and who was driving from a different state, was probably at the restaurant. She was. I met her there. I’m glad I did. The whole party was not something I could handle, but a drink with a close friend was the perfect thing.

I took a deep breath, and then another. I had come this far, and I was going to finish that degree.

Complacency Will Cost You

A few years ago, I went to the Verizon store with my mom just after Christmas. After years of resisting technology, she had just spent several days in the house with me and my sisters as we all shared photos and texts among one another. Mom felt a bit left out, and decided she was ready for a smartphone. We were thrilled.

Once in the store, we helped mom pick out a phone that would best suit her needs. The salesman then described the data plan. He offered her the same data plan that I had, but for $20 less a month.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I said. “I have those same levels of talk, text, and data, only I’m paying X.” The salesman got my mom set up with her new phone and then took a look at my plan, and found a way to match her deal. By speaking up at the right time, I scored a plan that was $20 cheaper each month, for the same amounts of service.

Fast forward to this year. I went in to the Verizon store because I was having an issue with my phone and needed some help. The salesman was able to help me with my concern, and then asked if he could look up my plan. I thought for sure he was going to try to sell me some new expensive deal. Instead, he offered the opposite.

Plans had changed over the previous year, and he could offer me the same amounts of talk and text (unlimited, for both) with more than double the data, plus monthly carry-over data, for less money each month.

I had my skeptical face on as I asked for the catch.

“No catch,” he said. The plans had changed since I last checked in, and as long as I stayed on auto-pay billing, I could have the cheaper rate.

Granted, I don’t have the latest model phone, but I bought it new (and for cheap, since it’s an older model) just a few months ago so it should last a good while. And I now have an even less expensive cell phone bill than when I matched my mom’s rate.

Lesson learned. Every year I’ll check in with my cell phone carrier to inquire about current plans and see if I’m eligible for any changes. I may not always be eligible for a discount, and there is certainly no secret or rocket science involved here, other than the importance of being vigilant and the willingness to have a conversation and ask about my options.